Beyond headlines

Since I was 10, I’ve made memories of headlines. Some are vague; others are detailed and fresh. My first such memory dates to early 1999, when NATO forces began bombing in Kosovo. I remember seeing the headlines, with big accompanying photos, day after day on the front page of The New York Times. The news fascinated me, even though I was completely ignorant about the history, context, or implications of what was going on. I remember asking my parents to explain to me what I was reading, and I remember beginning to learn history and about geopolitics, for the first time, by discussing with them the stories I was reading in the newspaper. A month later I saw the first specific headline that became seared into my memory when I read about a soon-to-be infamous school shooting in Colorado.

Two and a half years later I had grown up enough that, when my city was in the news for even more historical events, I was a regular newspaper reader. No longer did individual days’ headlines grab me and get lodged in my memory the same way, but the events unfolding before me affected me even more as I grew up. My adolescence was framed–even defined, in some ways–by a series of events that could only have been covered on A1. After wars, murders, and terrorism in 1999 and 2001 came a war in 2003 and elections in 2004, 2006, and 2008. Each event was important in world history and equally so in my coming of age.

Given how powerfully these events have affected me, I’m fascinated by other historical events that happened in my lifetime. I’ll never really be able to believe the Cold War ended after I was born, or that apartheid in South Africa fell apart when I was in elementary school. Without memories of those events–of seeing them written about the next day, or over weeks, on the front page of the Times–they feel like history to me, rather than the current events they were not too many years ago.

Another such event was made current again today, on its twentieth anniversary. As with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid, I’ve also never understood the Tiananmen Square protest, I suspect because I didn’t experience the event as it happened. The narrative as I’ve learned it after the fact–students and intellectuals in China protested for more freedom in 1989, the protest was quashed with a massacre, little more freedom arrived, and twenty years later no one protested–doesn’t make sense. Then again, I can’t expect China to make a lot of sense to me. In every way, it’s as foreign, as far from what I know, as anything on Earth.

I’ve loved learning just a little about China over the last year from a few sources. James Fallows, the Atlantic writer and editor who has lived in China for the last few years, maintains a blog that I’ve read religiously since last summer. He writes about technology, aviation, the craft of journalism and the life of a journalists, and China. All of his writing is interesting; his observations and understanding of China are enlightening. And since January a friend of mine, Dylan Suher, has been studying abroad in China. He too has kept a blog, where he has given a mostly personal account of his time there, but through which he has shared impressive insight into a country he is just getting to know. I’m glad he has blogged so regularly while abroad, disappointed his dispatches will cease when he returns to the U.S. this weekend, and most happy his wisdom will last in his writing. Trusting him to have something interesting to say in response, I recently sent him this Atlantic article by Mark Hertsgaard about China’s balance between economic development and environmental protection. The article is especially interesting because it was written in 1997, and yet it reads as if it could come out tomorrow: all the issues it covers seem as relevant, if not more so, today as they were a dozen years ago. Being the good friend and smart guy he is, Dylan replied to the article with a surprisingly long and thoughtful response, which I’ll assume his permission to reproduce here:

I was only too happy to read this article instead of reading [sic: missing word], although I was sad I couldn’t watch the YouTube video (damn you, China, don’t you know seeing the “Leprachaun” video is an inalienable human right?). I think it’s really right on. I think people who are not here can sometimes get the impression that the Chinese government and the Chinese people just don’t give a shit about the environment. But actually, compared to the Americans, the Chinese lifestyle is much more environmentally friendly (air drying, no heat below the Yangtze by government order, great public transportation, lots of biking). What we’re really worried about is that more and more Chinese will start to live like us, which would undoubtedly lead to a world environmental crisis. Also, the sense I’ve gotten is that in recent years (since this article has been written), the government has taken serious steps to improve the environmental situation. This of course varies from province to province and city to city (Yunnan has a particularly good party boss, according to people I’ve talked to), and some cities are still absolutely awful (I had a hard time breathing in Tai’an in Shandong province and in China’s coal centers in the Northeast, and the smog in Xi’an is really sad). But the government is limited in what it can do, both by corruption and by the economic/demographic situation.

I’ll give you the example of Kunming, since I know a bit about it. Kunming has about six million people, and is growing at an insanely rapid rate. The government expects it to reach ten million people by 2012 or so. Kunming’s main source of water is the filthy Dian Chi lake. Now, in America, most water pollution is agricultural or industrial. However, this is not the case with Dian Chi. Years ago, fertilizer and tanning plants did a number on Dian Chi, but most of those have been shut down; now, the main source of pollution is literally household sewage. But what can you do? It has to go somewhere. It doesn’t help that the marshes that used to clean Dian Chi were drained during the Great Leap Forward, but it’s now not an option to restore the wetland: it would mean the relocation of thousands of people who now live in the reclaimed land. So what can the government do? It can’t stop the migration. All it can do is really what it’s doing now, which is throwing millions at sewage processing plants and punishing people who violate plumbing regulations.

Which brings it back to the point that this guy made that I think is the most insightful and right on. China’s problem is a world problem. We have a billion very poor people, and the real question is, can we fulfill the promises that modern, liberal, capitalist society has made to allow every human being on the planet live a life of unprecedented comfort without destroying the planet. It’s something to lose sleep over.

With friends like these, who needs professionals to tell you about the world? Nevertheless I appreciate what professional journalists do (of course). In addition to Fallows’ writing and the Hertsgaard article, I recommend today’s column by Nick Kristof, in which he recounts his experience in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, when he was the Beijing bureau chief for the Times. Here is a fascinating recent blog post by John Pomfret outlining China’s relationship with North Korea, explaining why it may be that China watches happily as North Korea antagonizes the United States and the West. (H/T to Fallows for recommending it.) And here the Times runs down the stories behind the iconic photos of Tank Man in Tiananmen Square during the protest. (Here too is a follow-up post with a never-before-published picture of the event.) All interesting reads to learn just a little more about the Middle Kingdom in the modern era.

At work today, with the TVs on the cable networks, an MSNBC afternoon anchor said the following as the channel cut to a commercial break: “A dark chapter in China’s history: Tiananmen Square, twenty years later. What do you remember about the event?” This was followed by a call for viewers to send in their recollections of the protest and the massacre. The line was completely in character for cable news, and had I been barely less attentive I would have missed it. But I heard it, and it struck me. This simplification was just one example out of hundreds I must have heard on TV today. Yet it perfectly encapsulated a source of sadness in me: Here was “coverage” of a truly fascinating historical event that–by the choice of the “journalist”–removed all the elements that could have educated, enlightened viewers. Instead, we were given a vague allusion (“dark chapter”) and encouraged to be egocentric, to share our memories of the event, as if they were, are somehow relevant, as if they mean anything at all. Nothing before or after that teaser gave viewers any better understanding of what happened in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago, or what has come since. For that, one would have had to look elsewhere, far away. Cable news is pitiful, but the 2009 media landscape includes more media offering the same antisubstance. I’m saddened that so little attention is given to the most interesting parts of the news, which also happen to be the most valuable to know. And I’m fearful of a media that is ever receding into a universe of headlines.

Update 6/14/09: How many of my friends will go to China? With one high school friend recently back, another is leaving for Beijing in two days. And a friend from college will be there all of next year, taking a year away from Yale to study Chinese more in China. He’s a tremendously talented guy, as can be seen in this video of him speaking Chinese, playing cello, and beatboxing:

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